The UW-Whitewater defense is ready to go. Who else?
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
Three of the teams playing this weekend – Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor and UW-Whitewater – are Division III’s consensus elite teams of the past decade, all having played in Salem for a national championship in that span. The fourth – North Central – is a fast-moving thrill ride that has every reason to be playing along next to those powers (and the Cardinals would be the only ones of the bunch who wouldn’t bring the purple-clad fanbase that Division III’s championship city has gotten so used to seeing).
Pat, Keith and Ryan again bring you predictions and commentary in this penultimate weekend of the season, and we welcome your score predictions in the comments section below. Or you can reach out to us on Twitter at @d3football.com, @D3Keith or @NewsTipps.
Ryan’s take: I would have loved to have been listening in on the Mount Union locker room after last week’s narrow escape from Wesley’s rally – because being there might be the most telling piece of what kind of Purple Raiders team this is. I’m sure there was excitement, along with some relief. But is there now some doubt? Some shaken confidence? If there was, it will have been coach Vince Kehres’ task this week to firm up the mental foundation to get his team ready for the national semifinals. The matchups don’t get easier moving forward, no matter who advances. North Central is a total package team, from offense, defense, turnovers, red zone efforts. And they’ve surely proven capable each week of the postseason, being able to hang big numbers on big opposition. Mount Union is Mount Union, and, in the locker room after last week’s game, perhaps what they really thought was how much they relished the thrill of a successful hunt. North Central 38, Mount Union 27
Keith’s take: Truth be told, part of me is ready to see some new faces in Salem; North Central vs. UMHB would be different than the annual purple power Holiday party. On the other hand, the safe pick this time of year is always Mount Union. So, careful to make this pick about this year’s football teams, and not about my head or my heart, I set out to consume as much info as time would allow, including video of both quarterfinal wins. What I found were two teams with very smart quarterbacks, an array of playmakers, and opportunistic defenses. UMU and NCC are similar, yet very different from UW-W and UMHB, who are like one another. Some of the advantage each offense usually has will be negated by the fact that they run a lot of the same read-option based plays, bubble screens, etc. That means each defense has seen plenty of the looks it will see Saturday. I don’t get the sense that this North Central team will crumble under the weight of the moment, and Coach John Thorne is preaching the formula to win in Alliance: Limit turnovers and big plays (no easy scores) and make Mount Union work for their points. But the Purple Raiders also trot out the offense that put up 42 on a John Carroll defense that had allowed 33 in its first nine games, and exploded in last week’s 62-59 win. In all that I watched, the one thing I don’t see is how North Central is going to get pressure on UMU QB Kevin Burke. If they resort to exotic blitzes, he’ll see where they are coming from, and UMU will put up its points. Mount Union 41, North Central 31.
Pat’s take: All of the anecdotal evidence points at a struggle for the team coming in to play Mount Union for the first time. Those coming to see the Purple Raiders on their home turf for the first time in program history fare poorly. (Except UMHB. I see you, yes.) But it’s not the anecdotal evidence that leads me to pick the defending champs here. It’s the X’s and O’s. No, wait not that. The other one. I am not convinced that North Central has the the deep threats that Wesley did. Peter Sorenson is a big target but not Steve Kodossou. Is Chad O’Kane enough to do that? Probably not. Even with a better quarterback, just not sure how North Central is going to score quickly. Can they score points? Sure. But against an opponent that won’t allow much of a running game, not sure throwing underneath gets the job done. Mount Union 38, North Central 30.
Ryan’s take: Lining up against each other is the team I picked to win the Stagg Bowl in the preseason (UMHB) with a team that I wasn’t even sure would make the postseason (UWW). What makes this pair unique – and was already touched on by Keith in the ATN Podcast – is that neither team is being driven by an overwhelming superstar, the kind of which we’ve seen often from both squads in past years. Now, they both rely on team efforts to do what they do best: for the Cru, that’s put (lots of) points on the board; for Whitewater, it’s to stop just that sort of thing from happening. Because of that counterbalance, I love this matchup, and it truly is one that could go either way. I think two major things are going to come out of this game that will inevitably bring the two teams closer together: the Cru will be held to its lowest point total of the season, and UW-W will give up more points than it has to any one team this fall. Where those ends meet is where the game will get particularly thrilling. Mary Hardin-Baylor 28, UW-Whitewater 24
Keith’s take: The other game might be powered by offense, and star players under center, but this one matches the two best defenses left playing, with the most size and speed. Try in the early going to watch the battle along the line of scrimmage instead of following the ball; that’ll tell you more about which way the game is headed. Are the Cru defensive linemen too fast off the ball for UW-W, or is the Warhawks’ zone blocking using the Cru’s penchant for penetration against them and creating running lanes? UMHB has made its way by shutting down opposing running attacks (83 carries for 145 yards, 1.7 per carry, in the past two playoff games), but UW-W is a different level. Similarly, UW-W’s D has had its way with teams all season; Linfield got up big in the first half last week, but gained just over 90 yards in the second half while the Warhawks had seven of their eight sacks. Watch for the halftime adjustments from UW-W. Also, three UMHB players had a hand in TDs from the QB position last week (Marcus Wimby is technically listed as a WR), and while you can see why UMHB loves Zach Anderson — he has size, speed and an ability to improvise — watch to see if Brian Gallagher or Wimby get snaps. In the end, I expect a defense-controlled game to open up late. Mary Hardin-Baylor 27, UW-Whitewater 24.
Pat’s take: I said at the beginning of the playoffs that UMHB was going to be tough to beat at home. It’s hard for me to go against that now, even though I think UWW comes into Belton in a little better shape of the two teams. UMHB’s offense is a bit unsettled, without the dominant running back it’s had in the past or the stellar quarterback it had the past two years. And the defense might be missing Silvio Diaz Saturday, from what I’ve heard. Enough to make the entire difference? No. I still like UMHB enough at home. UW-Whitewater hasn’t allowed 21 points all year, but it hasn’t gone to Mary Hardin-Baylor yet either. Mary Hardin-Baylor 21, UW-Whitewater 20.